A mapping bouquet for AT

On Monday I blogged about the new rail timetables due out in March but at the same time also made a number of comments in relation to a new rail network map that AT were introducing that among other things, finally included the Northern Busway.

Some of the comments I made were perhaps a little nitpicky but comes from the fact I want to see AT do a good job as even little things can help in getting more people to try and use public transport. Many of the comments also echoed similar ones I’d made on twitter on the weekend.

To the surprise of myself and a to a few others who made comments, AT responded yesterday to say they’d made some changes as a result of the feedback.

Here’s the new version. The changes are subtle and seem to primarily consist of:

  • Changing the walk between Britomart and Lower Albert St – I still think this is unnecessary to even show this as a walk, in many cities overseas transfers between lines can be considerably longer and through a rabbit warren of tunnels
  • Adding the North Shore Hospital
  • Subtle changes to the Onehunga line at Penrose
  • Renaming ‘Bus/Train transport hub’ to just ‘Major transport hub’

Updated version – click to enlarge


As a comparison, this is the previous version looked like

Version released last week – click to enlarge

While the changes might be minor in the overall scheme of things, what impressed me was that AT were responsive and actually made them at all. I think what this also shows is that there are a lot of people in the transport advocacy community that want to help make things better. Perhaps AT should try to harness that a bit more to gather informal feedback for improvements.

And speaking of improvements, here’s another one for them. Why not show some of the future plans on map too, as a way of both highlighting those projects and letting people know that AT have plans to keep improving the network. Given the status of various projects right now, the City Rail Link and possibly the Eastern Busway should be shown – but then given the recent ATAP work perhaps the whole strategic network should be shown. Except for the likes of us and our readers, most Aucklanders probably don’t know many of these plans even exist.

The approach of showing future lines is quite common overseas. For example this is a rail map of Sydney from 2004. At the time the Epping-Chatswood line was under construction and it didn’t open till 2009 but was shown on the rail map so people know it was being built.

So how about it AT, let’s get at least some of those future lines added to maps.

New data on cycling

We’re always on the lookout for interesting new pieces of transport data. Smartphone apps and automated trip counters provide an increasing amount of usable, timely data that can tell us how, where, and (at times) why we’re travelling.

Moreover, transport agencies are increasingly open about publishing their data and opening it up for others to analyse. For instance, Auckland Transport now publishes data from dozens of automated cycle counters on its website, allowing organisations like Bike Auckland and Transportblog to track and analyse the benefits of investment in safe, separated cycleways.

But transport agencies aren’t the only people with data. I recently ran across two interesting sources of data on cycling that are being collected and published by private companies.

First, Strava, a social network that allows cyclists and runners to track their routes and publish them online, recently published a global map of user-submitted cycling routes. While Strava is targeted more towards athletes (or at least weekend warriors) than everyday cycle commuters, it still provides an interesting glimpse into where some people are cycling. (But not all!)

Here’s Auckland. This map pretty clearly shows the impact of recreation/sports cycling – although major commuter routes like Lake Road, Tamaki Drive, and the Northwestern Cycleway show up strongly, so does Scenic Drive in the Waitakeres, which is definitely not a common commuting route:


Here’s Christchurch – again, some of the same patterns, with hilly rides to the south of the city showing up stronger than cycling within the city:


And here’s Wellington. Perhaps not surprisingly, the busiest Strava corridors are on the flat areas around the edge of the harbour, and the ride up to the Hutt Valley:


Second, I happened to find out that the data from the automated cycle counter that AT installed on the Quay St cycleway is published online by Eco-Counter, alongside data from a whole bunch of similar counters around the world. (The only similar counter in NZ is in Hastings.)

The data shows daily trips on the Quay St cycleway. We’ve just ticked over 41,000 trips, or an average of 574 per day since it opened:


That’s pretty good for Auckland, but Eco-Counter’s data also shows how much better we could be. For instance, here’s a cycle counter in Freiburg, Germany, which I wrote about after a visit last December. They get an average of 9,134 cycle trips per day passing by their city centre counting point:


Closer to home, here’s a cycle counter in Darebin, a middle-suburban part of Melbourne, that gets more trips a day than Quay St – 1,340 cyclists a day on average. If the Australians can manage that in the ‘burbs, why can’t we?


As always, discussion is encouraged! Also, if you have any additional sources of interesting data, leave them in the comments.

Apartments and housing affordability

The NZ Herald’s been running a series on Auckland’s housing affordability crisis. The articles thus far have ranged from thoughtful and thought-provoking to downright imbecilic – such as a mortgage broker’s suggestion that young people could afford homes if they gave up their Sky subscription. I think there’s a Tui ad for that.

One of the best bits, however, is the interactive map of housing affordability that data journalist Caleb Tutty put together. Here it is in animated gif form:

The map shows the share of properties sold within each suburb over the last year that you’d be able to afford, depending upon how much of a deposit you’d saved up.

For example, here’s what the affordability map looks like if you have $100,000 in the bank. Under current bank lending policies you can borrow 80% of the house value, meaning that your deposit will buy you a half-million dollar house. Observe how the vast majority of the city is coloured red, indicating that the majority of properties would be beyond your reach.

NZH home affordability map $100k deposit

Incidentally, a $100,000 deposit is a prohibitively large sum for most young Aucklanders. According to Stats NZ data on incomes, in 2015 the median pre-tax weekly income for Aucklanders in their late 20s (25-29) was $729, or around $38,000 a year. Income taxes take about $5,700 of that sum, leaving $32,300 to provide for the necessities and save for a deposit. (On average, people in their early 30s earn a bit more – $901 per week – but that doesn’t close the gap.)

Consequently, the average young Aucklander would have to save something like one-third of their after-tax income for ten years in order to afford a deposit on a half-million dollar home. So in other words, if you’re young, you’re probably screwed no matter how thrifty or prudent you are… unless your parents are wealthy and generous.

However, there are some tentative bright spots in this rather disheartening picture. To illustrate, I’ve reduced the deposit to $70,000, which is still pretty onerous but not impossible for young people. That would allow you to buy a home worth $350,000. Here’s the map. Now the entire city is shaded a deeply unaffordable red. You can hardly buy anything anywhere. The isthmus is red. The North Shore is red. The Waitakeres are red. Manukau is red. You can’t even afford to live in Otara or Manurewa.

NZH home affordability map $70k deposit

But if you zoom in closer, you’ll notice that there is still a solitary green patch of affordability in the middle. The majority of apartment sales in the city centre are still in your price range! You can afford 55% of the properties sold in the city centre or in neighbouring Grafton. (Manukau central is the next most affordable place – just under half of the dwellings sold there are cheaper than $350,000. But there are fewer homes there.)

NZH home affordability map city centre

Prices in the city centre aren’t necessarily cheap in an absolute sense – but it nonetheless offers many more options for a young buyer seeking to buy a starter home than anywhere else in Auckland.

Why is this?

It’s not because demand to live in the city centre is low. Its residential population has quadrupled since 2001 – a rate of increase that far outstrips the rest of the city. Today, there are more people living in the Auckland city centre than there are in Whanganui.

City Centre Population - 1996-2015 2

What sets the city centre apart isn’t low demand but high supply responsiveness: the city centre has stayed affordable because lot of apartments have been built there. This includes a mix of expensive apartments and small, affordable apartments to meet a range of different demands for space. Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry is moving into a luxury apartment in the Viaduct Harbour, while there are many students on low incomes living a bit further up the hill.

These maps show one simple thing: Building lots of apartments works. The one place in the city where we’ve allowed it to happen – the city centre – is now the most affordable place in the city.

There’s nothing that special about the city centre. It’s hardly the only place in the city where it’s physically possible or commercially feasible to build apartments. We could allow the same thing to happen in a lot of places, and reap the benefits.

This doesn’t mean a high-rise building on every street. It’s possible to build lots of apartments while keeping building heights to a quite human scale – three to seven storeys, say. This is the model that’s worked well in a lot of European cities. Like this new neighbourhood in Freiburg, Germany:

Source: Celsias

Source: Celsias

It’s also a model that allowed fast-growing New World cities to develop and prosper a century ago – as this excellent article from Bike Portland points out. This is the type of building that we used to build:

So what’s the holdup?

Mid-week reading: Kim-Mai Cutler, map-making, the Black Death, and knowledge as a public good

Welcome back to mid-week reading. With luck, there are only going to be a few more of these until I’m back on a more regular posting schedule.

First piece of the week is from Kim-Mai Cutler, a tech journalist from San Francisco who’s produced some invaluable reporting on their (our) housing crisis. The Bay Area is really where the forces of the age are colliding – a disruptive (and very productive) tech ecosystem butting up against a set of inflexible land use policies.

Cutler’s put together a fascinating and wide-ranging set of slides describing “the San Francisco Bay Area in the Second Gilded Age“. It’s really invaluable reading for anyone seeking to understand the issue.


Thus far, it’s been housing affordability. Poverty rates have been rising and home ownership falling throughout the Bay Area, in spite of rising incomes. Notice those figures for home ownership rates in San Francisco – only 36.6% of dwellings are owner-occupied, and the city’s politics are still in the grips of reflexive NIMBY opposition to development.


In the process, Cutler covers transport and social mobility – the reason why it’s important to build more housing in the places where people want to be. It has been possible to build quite a lot of housing in far-away places like Stockton, but that hasn’t really fixed the problem.


Here’s a more light-hearted comment on the phenomenon:

On a completely different note, Alison Ballance at Radio New Zealand has put together a really interesting piece on how maps are made: “Points, lines, and polygons – the art of making maps“. It goes into the nitty-gritty of putting together topographic maps, talking to the people at Land Information New Zealand who are responsible for the process:

Maps tell the story of our ever-changing Earth.

The length and breadth of New Zealand is charted, at a scale of 1:50,000, across 451 topographic maps produced with technical skill, art and patience by a team of map makers at Land Information New Zealand.

The map makers are witness to several stories unfolding in the country.

The most dramatic is the impact of Christchurch earthquakes. The strong black block that was the city’s CBD has been shattered into a mosaic, while the red zone is a ghostly snake of deserted roads that echo the shape of the Avon River.

Meanwhile, in the countryside humans are changing the landscape as farming evolves with market demands and new practices.

In the pre- earthquake map the central business district is a large black shaded area. In the post- earthquake there is only scattered black in the CBD and the ghostly remains of houses and roads in the red zone along the Avon River

Christchurch city before the earthquakes (left) and five years afterwards (right). Photo: Land Information New Zealand

This is a good point to drop in a reference to my favourite song named after map coordinates: Wire’s “Map Ref 41°N 93°W”. For the curious, the title refers to a field in Iowa.

On a much less cheerful note (worse than housing affordability!), I ran across this interesting map of the progress of the Black Death across Europe in the mid-1300s (via Zach Beauchamp at Vox):

The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the mid-14th century, killing an estimated 60 percent of Europe’s entire population. And it spread scarily quickly just over the course of six years — as this stunning GIF demonstrates:

vox black death map

 (Andrei Nacu)

The plague originated in China in 1334 and then spread west along trading routes through the Middle East. But Europe was particularly vulnerable to a devastating outbreak. According to University of Oslo historian Ole Benedictow, European society at the time had created the conditions for “the golden age of bacteria.” Population density and trade/travel had grown dramatically, but European leaders still had almost no knowledge about how to contain outbreaks.

The forces that allow diseases to evolve and disseminate are stronger than ever. We live in a more connected world. But the last point in the above paragraph – knowledge – is crucial to how we respond to potential pandemics… and also to more mundane causes of death.

I was thinking about this issue after reading a review of Angus Deaton’s 2013 book Great Escape, which discusses the transformative increase in living standards over the last several centuries. Deaton, who won last year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, makes a really valuable point: living standards have risen faster than incomes in many countries, as knowledge has been freely shared around the world:

Knowledge — which is to say education — is humanity’s most important engine of improvement. Deaton concludes, based on the data, that rising education is the most powerful cause of the recent longevity boom in most poor countries, even more powerful than high incomes. A typical resident of India is only as rich as a typical Briton in 1860, for example, but has a life expectancy more typical of a European in the mid-20th century. The spread of knowledge, about public health, medicine and diet, explains the difference.

Unfortunately, knowledge and facts are often on the defensive today. Fundamentalists of various stripes keep many countries from completing their own great escape. In the West, science still sometimes yields to dogma, on climate change, on evolution and on economic policy. Elites on both the right and left question the value of education for the masses and oppose attempts to improve schools even as they spend countless hours and dollars pursuing the finest possible education for their own children.

It is true that many of today’s biggest problems, including economic growth, education and climate, defy easy solutions. But the same was true, and much more so, about escaping centuries of poverty and early death. It was hard, and it involved a lot of failure along the way. The story Deaton tells — the most inspiring human story of all — should give all of us reason for optimism, so long as we are willing to listen to its moral.

I like this story. As an economist, much of what I do is basically about trying to improve allocation decisions in the context of scarcity. Do we devote road space to this use, or that one? Do we require people to do X (when there may be reasons to believe they’d prefer Y instead)? This is probably useful work, but it’s still a bit depressing to be constantly working within the context of fundamental trade-offs.

However, knowledge (and information in general) isn’t like that. If I know something, it doesn’t mean that you can’t know it. If you communicate something to me, it doesn’t mean you have to give it up in the process. Knowledge can be shared, and one person’s attempt to learn more will probably increase the stock of knowledge available to all humanity. It’s a public good. It’s a positive-sum game. It is, as Deaton points out, the best thing we’ve got going for us.